In March of 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his final days as leader of the Israeli opposition, met with me in his Knesset office to discuss an issue that was at the forefront of his mind. He had just won election (for a second time) as prime minister, and he was busy packing, but his thoughts were on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and on the new American president, Barack Obama.
"The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told me. He described the Iranian nuclear threat as a "hinge of history" and said that the future of "Western civilization" itself depended on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
He used memorable language—language he would later deploy constantly as prime minister—to describe the threat Iran posed to Israel, to its Arab adversaries, and to the West: "You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran."
Netanyahu has come to Washington as part of his re-election campaign, but his main challenge is not to convince voters on the Israeli right to stick with him on March 17th, when they go to the polls. Nor is his main challenge to give an eloquent speech—he knows how to do this. His main challenge is to provide an alternative vision to President Obama's plan for Iran. Yesterday, Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, went before 16,000 people at the annual AIPAC convention and said, "We cannot let an unachievable ideal stand in the way of a good deal."
The question for Netanyahu is: Is there anything short of carpet-bombing Iran's nuclear facilities that would constitute, for you, a good deal?
I mentioned Netanyahu's characterization of Iran's leadership as a "messianic apocalyptic cult" at the top of this post for a reason. The prime minister's position is that Iran should be allowed no uranium enrichment capability whatsoever, and that relentless sanctions—even more crippling than those currently in place—should be applied until Iran's leaders see the light. But the question is, why would a group of apocalyptic messianists ever fully succumb to sanctions pressure?
This question struck me in 2009 as well. From my post about our interview:
Netanyahu said he would support President Obama’s decision to engage Iran, so long as negotiations brought about a quick end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it,” he said, but he added that he was skeptical that Iran would respond positively to Obama’s appeals...
“I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.” When I suggested that this statement contradicted his assertion that Iran, by its fanatic nature, is immune to pressure, Netanyahu smiled thinly and said, “Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”
He went on, “Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?"
Many of Netanyahu's arguments about the deal currently taking shape, and about the desires of the Iranian regime, are credible—even President Obama doesn't appear to be convinced that Iran's leaders are on the cusp of a breakthrough—and I'm sure we'll hear those arguments today. I'm also reasonably sure Netanyahu will talk about the need for ever-more crippling sanctions, sanctions that would further concentrate the attention of the regime in Tehran. But I've spoken with Netanyahu several times since the 2009 interview, and I'm convinced he believes, more than ever, that sanctions will not force the Iranians to agree to the sort of deal he could support, or do anything at all to break their will.
What we are left with, then, is military action. If Netanyahu believes that the only solution to this problem is airstrikes, he should say so plainly. He won't, of course, because he understands that the U.S. is not interested in opening up another Middle Eastern front, and also—I'd like to think—because he knows, intellectually, if not viscerally, that airstrikes present no permanent fix to this problem. It is true that airstrikes could set back the Iranian nuclear program by a number of years. It is also true, however, that airstrikes would give Iran the justification to race ahead toward nuclear breakout, as well as providing it with the means to do so, because airstrikes would lead to, among other things, the almost total collapse of international sanctions. And airstrikes cannot eradicate nuclear knowledge, and Iran possesses that in abundance.
Based on the details that have leaked out of the nuclear talks, the deal that is taking shape has some very apparent weaknesses. Netanyahu's challenge is not to point out those weaknesses. His challenge is to present a better alternative to this deal, an alternative that the U.S., Israel, the Arabs—and Iran—must be willing to live with.
Netanyahu's concern about Iran is correct: I don't want a gang of anti-American anti-Semites gaining control of nuclear weapons, either. But he must present a plan that has a realistic chance of succeeding.